Create a Memorable Holiday Cheese Plate
A gorgeous well-appointed cheese plate takes its eaters on a taste adventure that delights and satisfies and even sparks conversation: could there be a better party food? Composing a cheese plate may seem like the ultimate no-brainer party fare, but creating a great cheese plate takes more planning and expertise than meets the eye.
Whether you want to serve a cheese plate at a party for 50 or for a cozy night with a loved one in front of the fire, here you’ll find the expert tips and know-how to build a memorable cheese plate.
Know Your Crowd
Before you get started, consider who you will be serving, says Thalassa Skinner, co-founder of Culture cheese magazine and a California-based cheesemonger and independent retail sales specialist. “It makes a difference if you’ve got excited peeps who are eager to learn and explore versus nervous types who are a bit hesitant to try things out of their comfort zone.”
How Many Cheeses?
Even if your party is a party of 2, a good rule of thumb is to have at least 3 cheeses for your spread, but to increase that number by 1 cheese for every 3 guests, according to Amy Scheuerman, Web Editor at Culture cheese magazine. This doesn’t mean, though, that you just keep heaping cheeses onto the plate the larger your party gets. More than 5 cheeses do start to get confusing. In essence, each person will try each cheese (if they are adventurous), and depending on the cheeses that are chosen, the taste buds will get tired, according to Skinner.
Another route you can go is the less-is-more trajectory. “I sometimes serve just one big wedge of a distinctive cheese (or a whole soft cheese) with a variety of accompaniments. Then the cheese itself shines, no one gets overwhelmed, and there’s nothing to think about but simply enjoying,” Skinner says.
A little math can save you a lot of money when buying cheese for a party.
Scheuerman says to estimate 3 to 4 ounces of cheese per person at your gathering. This means that a group of 10 people would need a total of about 2 pounds of cheese. You’ll divide this between the various cheeses you choose to serve, she says.
If you want your party to have more of a cheese-tasting angle, then the order in which the cheeses are eaten is important, Skinner advises. “If there’s a light goat’s milk cheese on the plate as well as a robust blue cheese, and the blue lovers dive right in, the blue will obliterate the taste of the lighter cheese. So, having a method to the plate (i.e., an easily followed order) does help; though most people don’t really care all that much if it’s a holiday gathering and just for pure pleasure. No one will be policing the plate (except in my house!).” Consider using cheese labels with numbers associated with the order they should be eaten in, if you want order in the house.
When choosing the cheese varieties for your plate, color, texture and different milk types all matter, according to Skinner. “You don’t want to serve all big, bold, massive cheeses. You want to have a mixture of different styles and intensities so there’s something to remember and follow. Like a wine tasting, you don’t normally serve all massive cabernets. Mix it up and provide relief.”
Scheuerman suggests having a hard cheese (like a cheddar, aged gouda, or pecorino); a soft cheese (a bloomy rind such as brie or a decadent cheese like a triple creme); a blue cheese; an adventurous cheese or two (washed-rind cheeses are great for this); and a sheep or goat cheese. You can mix and match these to fit the number of cheeses you want to have and to cater to your guests’ palates.
For a health-conscious crowd, Skinner suggests soft cheeses. They contain more water, and ounce for ounce are lower in calories because of it. And serve hard cheeses (Piave, extra-aged gouda, Parmigiano Reggiano) in shavings. The flavor is big but the portion size is small this way, she says.
Offering a variety of non-cheese items with the cheese plate provides an effective palate cleanser between tastes and looks pretty to boot. “I always like dried fruit (including dried strawberries, blueberries and a variety of raisins) with cheese, as well as some lightly toasted nuts (I prefer almonds). They’re perfect for cleansing the palate but don’t overwhelm. If you do serve nuts, make sure they are either unsalted or lightly salted. Cheese is already salty (in general), so you don’t need to add to it. Don’t forget fresh fruit too! Pears are a wonderful accompaniment to cheeses and often overlooked,” says Skinner.
Many grocery stores now offer a wide variety of quality imported cheeses and American artisan-crafted cheeses. Farmers’ markets are also a great place to find local cheeses. Not all cheeses that are organic are labeled as such. Get to know the cheesemonger at your store and markets so that he or she can direct you to what you are looking for, offer tastes, and even order special requests.
Amy Scheuerman, Web Editor at Culture cheese magazine, offers these tips for creating, and maintaining, an attractive party cheese plate.
- Warm Up: First, remove the cheeses from your refrigerator at least an hour ahead of time. This will allow them to come to room temperature, which means that they’ll be more flavorful and easier to cut and spread.
- Border Patrol: For things like runny jams or juicy pickles, choose bowls that will contain them well and small spoons or forks for serving. This keeps things neat the whole evening long.
- Separate Servers: Harder cheeses will require a knife with a sharp edge, while creamy cheeses will need something with a wide flat blade, and blue or flavored cheeses always need their own knife so their strong flavors don’t take over every cheese.
- Who’s Who: Label the cheeses and accompaniments. You may feel silly doing it, but your guests will be thrilled—especially if they find a new cheese they love and want to buy for themselves.